New Research Explores Multiple Placements And Criminal Behavior

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Cathy Widon, PhD recently published an article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry that studied the relationship between maltreatment, multiple placements, and criminal behavior. She noted that many maltreated children do not later develop criminal or violent behavior, so she wanted to investigate the factors that may play a role in whether or not delinquent and criminal behaviors develop. She noted several studies that have shown that the average length of stay for children in foster care is 5 years, and that 62% of children in foster care were expected to remain in foster care until adulthood. Many of these children had been placed in multiple foster and group homes (42% in one foster home, 30% in 2 homes, 18% in 3 homes & 10% in 4 or more homes) over a 5 year period. While several studies have shown that the frequency of behavior problems in children in foster care decreases after 6 months of placement, in about 10% of children problems increase instead.

Widom's study looked at over 700 children who had been in foster care about 20 years ago, and their later involvement in criminal behavior. She found that 50% of children had only one placement, 16% were in 2 placements, 12% had 3-5 placements, and 4% had 6 or more placements, and that children were in foster care for an average of 5 years. Children who had a history of delinquent behavior before being placed in foster care were 5-6 times more likely than children with no prior history of delinquent behavior to have arrests as a juvenile and an adult, indicating that foster care itself is not related to increases in criminal behavior, but that delinquent behavior prior to involvement in foster care is highly related to whether or not criminal behavior will continue.

The age at which the child was removed from the home was also related to later criminal acts, primarily because these children had engaged in delinquent behavior prior to being placed in foster care. The longer the time the child spent in the first foster care placement, the lower the incidence of later criminal behavior. In addition, the more times a child was moved in foster care, the greater the likelihood of later criminal behavior. However, the children who ALREADY had behavior problems were much more likely to have multiple moves (37% versus 7%) and to engage in criminal behavior, so it cannot be said that multiple moves caused delinquent behavior. Instead, this study showed that delinquent behavior leads to multiple moves in foster care, and that these children are likely to continue their criminal behavior as they grow up. Sixty-five percent of children who had 3 or more placements had histories of delinquent behavior prior to being in foster care (only 13% of all children had 3 or more placements).

The results of this study have important implications for children with attachment disorder, who usually have a history of behavior problems before foster/adoptive placement, and so can be presumed to be a higher risk for multiple placements and later criminal behavior. Early and accurate diagnosis of attachment disorder could help to prevent some of these problems because children could be placed in foster homes where parents are train-ed to work with children with attachment disorder, thus preventing multiple placements. In addition, appropriate therapy could be started at an earlier age, when it is more likely to be successful, thus also preventing multiple placements, delinquent behavior, and later criminal behavior. As Wiltse and Gambrill (1073) note, "... a disturbed child who enters foster care is more likely to experience more numerous placements, and his symptoms increase accordingly." In addition, Runyan and Gould (1985) note that maltreated children with behavior problems were 2-3 times more likely to become delinquent than those free of behavior problems.

Future research that looks at children in foster care more recently is needed, as the children in Widom's study mostly had parents who abused alcohol or had serious emotional problems. It is possible that the outcome would be somewhat different for today's children in foster/adoptive care, as many have single mothers, teenage mothers, and/ or drug abusing mothers and are more severely damaged by profound neglect that were children 20 years ago. Such research could have even more important implications for children with attachment disorder than does Widom's study.
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